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Martha Custis Washington's Excellent Cake

Take your kitchen back to the 18th century
Courtesy of Todd Trice, Chicago Tribune

During the 18th century, election cakes could serve up to 150 people. The confections were meant to feed a crowd, including Martha Washington's "Great Cake." The former first lady's dessert was made with 40 eggs and five pounds of flour. Of course not everyone in the 21st century plans to entertain such a large group of people, but that doesn't mean you can't make the dessert. During elections, Fourth of July and more patriotic events, try making this scaled back version of Washington's cake. 

This recipe by Bill Daley was originally published in the Chicago Tribune

Ready in
3 h
1 h
(prepare time)
2 h
(cook time)
Calories Per Serving


For the cake

  • 1 Cup ale
  • 1 Ounce active yeast
  • 1 Cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 Cup sherry
  • 8 Cups flour
  • 1 Teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 Teaspoon ground cloves, ground mace
  • 1 Cup granulated sugar
  • 3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, cold
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 Tablespoon each: rose water, lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 Pound currants
  • 2 Ounces candied orange peel, chopped
  • Candied orange peel or dehydrated orange slices

For the tea simple syrup

  • 3/4 Cups granulated sugar
  • 1 Cup water
  • 1 black tea bag
  • 1 Ounce spiced rum
  • 1 Teaspoon rose water

For the buttercream icing

  • 2 1/2 Pounds confectioners' sugar
  • 2 Cups egg whites
  • 8 sticks of butter
  • 2 oranges


For the cake

Warm 1/2 cup ale and dissolve the yeast in it.

Let sit about 5 minutes or until the yeast begins to froth in the ale.

Mix cream, sherry and remaining 1/2 cup ale in a large bowl.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, spices and sugar at a low speed.

Then cut in the butter until pea-size bits remain and the mixture resembles wet sand.

Slowly add the barm, the cream-sherry-ale mixture, eggs, egg yolk, rose water and lemon juice while the mixer is running.

Beat until combined on low speed.

Stir in the currants and orange peel with a wooden spoon.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap; allow the dough to rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in volume, in a warm place.

Spray two 10-inch cake pans with nonstick spray; line bottoms with parchment paper.

Divide the dough in half; press each half into cake pans.

Cover with plastic wrap; allow the dough to rise in a warm place until the pans are three-quarters full, about 1 hour.

Gently remove the plastic wrap; bake the cakes in a 340-degree oven until a toothpick comes out clean, 45-60 minutes. Let cool.

Using a serrated knife, slice the rounded top off of each cake, making it level and flat.

Slice each cake in half horizontally, making two layers from each pan, being careful to keep the layers as even as possible.

You will end up with four even round layers.

Brush each layer with the tea simple syrup.

Place one layer on a cake stand or plate.

Top with orange buttercream, spreading the icing to the edge.

Repeat with the other layers, building a four-layer cake.

Finish the cake by icing the top and sides with the orange butter cream.

Garnish with candied orange peel or dehydrated orange slices.

For the tea simple syrup

Heat 3/4 cup granulated sugar and 1 cup water to a boil in a small saucepan.

Remove from heat.

Add 1 black tea bag; steep until the syrup turns brown, about 5 minutes.

Remove the tea bag; stir in 1 ounce spiced rum and 1 teaspoon rose water.

Let stand at room temperature until ready to use; can be made and kept refrigerated up to 3 days in advance.

For the buttercream icing

Place 2 1/2 pounds confectioners' sugar and 2 cups egg whites in the heat proof bowl of an electric mixer.

Set the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water; whisk until the sugar has dissolved and the egg whites are hot to the touch, about 3 minutes.

The mixture should be completely smooth.

Transfer the bowl to the mixer stand.

Using the whisk attachment, beat on high speed until the mixture has cooled completely and formed stiff and glossy peaks, about 10 minutes.

Cut 2 pounds (8 sticks) butter into 1/2-inch pieces and add it, one piece at a time, beating until incorporated after each addition.

Add the zest of 2 oranges; slowly whisk to combine.